Council tackles Comprehensive Plan’s take on schools

Last Wednesday the Comprehensive Plan’s “road tour” made its scheduled stop at the Education, Equity and Governance Committee to discuss the future of schools in the city.

It’s an awkward conversation, because the schools strategy and execution is mostly run by the Seattle School Board, not by the Council and the Mayor. That said, there are several points of cooperation that are ongoing points of discussion. Some of them are fairly innocuous (though still important) such as arts and cultural programs. But there are three more substantive points:

Finding new space for the preschool program. The pilot program has been a strong success, and the Council is strongly supportive of further expanding it. Already this spring this has created a conflict with the School District’s own needs to accommodate growth, and clearly that conflict will only grow.

Development standards for model urban schools.  The reality is that there simply isn’t room for large, sprawling campuses anymore, so the way schools are built will need to change. That raises a plethora of building code issues: requirements for parking, building height, street setbacks, etc. There are standard specs for what students should have access to in every school, such as a gym and a cafeteria, but there is still a large range. One school in Seattle has a 6000 square foot gym; another has a 1500 square foot one, and a third school’s gym is in a double-portable.  There are also density issues: as the school district tries to achieve a 17:1 student-to-teacher ration, it will need to build more classrooms — and new schools will need more classrooms from the start.  And there are issues with the many schools that need renovation: seismic retrofits are underway or complete, but HVAC systems, leaky roofs, and other building issues that can detract from the educational experience of the students still need to be addressed.

Closely tied to the issue of development standards is shared resources. There is sharing in both directions: schools leverage parks and community centers, and the Parks Department leverages school facilities. There are shared-use agreements in place, but the recent shift in school-hours has created some challenges in scheduling and shows how brittle those arrangements can be in the face of changing needs. But they are clearly necessary moving forward, in a city where there is simply no room for new self-sufficient campuses in our urban centers and villages.

But that points to two dilemmas that emerged in the discussion. The first relates to the relationship between where we want growth and where we want schools. The Comprehensive Plan is very clear that growth should be concentrated in urban villages and centers, and focuses on how to add school capacity in those areas of the city. The plan forces the growth into those areas through zoning: that is where the new housing will be built. But most of it will be in multi-family buildings, and those contain few family-size units. That is driving families with children out of the urban villages and centers and into single-family zones. At least the ones who have the economic means to do so; as Council member Gonzalez pointed out, the ones who don’t either stay in urban villages and centers or move to places with less access and opportunity. So how does that change our calculus for where to put schools? Perhaps it doesn’t if the city can amass enough resources, programs and incentives to get affordable family-sized housing built and preserves in urban villages, but to-date those efforts have been ineffective. The Seattle Housing Levy and the Mandatory Housing Affordability programs are both trying to tackle this issue; perhaps they will do better. But in the meantime, where do the schools go when the growth in population doesn’t match the growth in kids?

The second dilemma is how the city prioritizes the use of the scarce — and expensive — available land. The Parks Department is tasked with creating more parks and open spaces. The Office of Housing, with its partners, is trying to build more housing. And the city needs schools to accommodate the population growth. The competition for land is intense, and the Comprehensive Plan doesn’t specify how to resolve it.

In the end, much of what the draft Comprehensive Plan has to say about schools is a collection of questions, with few answers. And it points to exactly how critical — and difficult — it will be to get the details right on housing in the coming years.